The Next Generation of Business Engagement

Across the U.S., awareness of Facebook stands at something north of 90 percent. That doesn’t mean nine out of 10 Americans are using Facebook (and certainly not that anywhere near that number are using it well…), but rather that nearly everyone says “Yes” when asked “Have you heard of Facebook?” Still, it’s an impressive statistic: relatively few brands have a +90 percent awareness level.

The challenge now is doing something with social media, and in particular doing something that – in a business context – you would not be able to do as well using an alternative form of media or communication channel. In a word, that “something” is “engagement,” but redefined to include what Altimeter’s Jeremiah Owyang refers to as the “higher levels of engagement,” meaning content creation and collaborative activity.

This is where social technology really shines. These higher levels of engagement are what differentiates social from traditional efforts. Somewhat simplified, traditional media drives awareness, creates pent-up demand (“desire”), and can certainly spark conversations. In the traditional funnel what follows are consideration and purchase, leading, ultimately, to testimonials and brand advocacy. In theory, at least.

With the rise of social technology, consideration morphs into conversation as potential customers turn to existing customers and vet the claims asserted through awareness vehicles. This leads directly to the first of the “higher levels” of engagement: curation. Here’s a simple example: looking for electronics on Amazon, after reading some reviews a potential customer will often indicate which review was most (or least) helpful in making a decision. That’s social engagement, and importantly it occurs between shoppers.

This sharing between shoppers turns out to be a defining characteristic of social versus interactive behavior (as I’ve noted, the exchange of content – thoughts, ideas, and experiences via posts, videos, and photos – is the transition to social). Businesses offering customers the ability to not only rate and recommend, but to curate those ratings and recommendations move to the head of the class on this count.

Beyond curation, increasing levels of engagement include content creation – posting your own review, or uploading your own video – and ultimately, collaboration. Regardless of where you draw the line separating traditional and social with regard to your own definition of “engagement,” collaboration is on the social side of that line. It’s collaboration that turns a one-way, mine-laden suggestion box – as in “What happened to that gal who used to work in tech support…was she seen near the suggestion box?” – into a powerful innovation platform like “My Starbucks Idea.” Last week Starbucks announced the implementation of its 100th customer-driven innovation. For those keeping track, since rolling out its collaborative idea-sharing platform in 2008, Starbucks has averaged one customer-driven idea implementation per week. Disclosure: I am a gold-card carrying Starbucks advocate.

My disclosure is actually important, for two reasons. First, as a writer, I have a duty to my audience to share (to be transparent about) anything that might lead me to write one way versus another. So, you should know that I’m an advocate of certain brands: Continental Airlines, Mercedes Benz, Google, Slingshot wakeboards, and Maker’s Mark whisky. But there’s an even more important reason: I wasn’t always a Starbucks advocate. In the ’90s I enjoyed Starbucks while working in Seattle and Redmond. In the mid-2000s, I sniped at the brand more often than I posted “love notes,” as the chain devolved from a nice refuge with excellent coffee into a Williams-Sonoma retail wanna-be that also happened to serve (inconsistent) coffee.

So what changed? Some amazing things happened: taking a cue from Toyota way back in the 1980s, CEO Howard Schultz stopped the presses, literally. The focus returned to coffee, and every barista (re)learned how to make the same excellent cup of it. At about that time, Starbucks rolled out “My Starbucks Idea.” Starbucks turned to its customers, and genuinely, humbly asked us to help it re-find its way. When a friend who’s drifted turns to you and asks for help, how can you not put your hand on that person’s shoulder and say “Yes”? Starbucks engaged its customers at the absolute highest level – making them and their ideas part of the experience that now defines their Starbucks. That’s why I’m an advocate now.

By the way, if you’re wondering about the ROI, about the dollars and cents business payoff, then jump over to Yahoo Finance and compare SBUX over the past three years with other similar businesses. How’s that for ROI? Starbucks has approached social technology holistically, as a part of its overall business planning and innovation process. The firms’ deep level of commitment to customer engagement has clearly paid off.

If these higher levels of engagement are what you’re after, social technology is the vehicle you’re looking for. This month I’ve released my newest book, “Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement.” It walks through these higher levels of engagement and the tools that support them, and includes specific exercises that show you how to apply social technology – beyond Facebook and Twitter – to your business. Even better, the book includes an index of the top thought leaders – Jeremiah Owyang and Charlene Li, Paul Greenberg and Esteban Kolsky, J.D Lasica, Ross Mayfield, and K.D. Paine along with two dozen more – so that you can quickly build your own list of go-to social technology professionals.

Regardless of the path you take, social technology enables engagement with customers on their terms, where they live, in their lives, and as a result provides a business platform that extends and amplifies your ongoing awareness efforts. Dig into social and redefine engagement: your customers will reward you as they willingly take on new levels of brand ownership, stewardship, and advocacy.

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